Christ, a finger wag in word form. Words don’t have hips or hands to put on those hips, and yet, there they are: “My Statement on the Irene Situation.” Your reaction to that is my reaction to the whole thing. And what is the “whole thing,” even? How far does this frustration stretch back? To the beginning of cancel culture? To Tiger Woods on the television apologizing to you for his infidelity? I don’t want to be one of those people who gleefully “cancels” until the canceling becomes inconvenient. Donovan and I have spoken extensively on the subject on our podcast Questions: We Don’t Have Answers — inconclusively, as you might expect. But we’ve been graced with a collision of cancel culture and idol culture that I need to untangle before I spontaneously combust.
For some background, take it away, E! News:
Reportedly on October 20, a fashion editor named Kang Kook Hwa took to social media with allegations about an unnamed female celebrity who she accused of “spewing insults at my face.” She further described the encounter as “hell for 20 minutes.”
Following the claims, Irene, a 29-year-old member of South Korean girl group Red Velvet, came forward online.
“This is Irene,” the singer began in an Oct. 22 Instagram post, which was typed in Korean and has been translated to English. “I sincerely apologize for hurting the stylist with my foolish attitude and careless words and actions.”
Red Velvet’s label SM Entertainment issues an adjacent apology and didn’t do anything weird, and Irene’s Instagram post was flooded with positive messages whose upvotes numbered in the tens of thousands. Of course, I also saw indication that Irene was getting death threats — let’s say, more death threats than usual — and that shouldn’t be a surprise. I’m not interested in comparing the plights of these two people, Irene and the stylist, whose last name I assume is Kang — thanks, E! News, for the rendering. The lesson, as always, is I don’t know their stories.
If I was the stylist, I’d absolutely rage-post after being screamed at by someone famous, or otherwise, what, consign yourself to a hell of anonymous victimhood? Fuck no. And with Irene, I totally get being so mad at work you’d go all Godzilla. Work is terrible. For her — high-pressure. Being so understated, Irene is a difficult character to fully realize, but from what I’ve seen so far, she’s intensely professional and extremely talented, and that can be a volatile mix. Maybe someone’s fixing the lights on the set of Terminator Salvation and trashing your scene, so you let loose the most beautiful tirade ever accidentally committed to recording. Regardless, I get it, all cases: anger, shock — it’s human. Incidents like this are literally inevitable, though no less shitty because of that.
The Wrong here isn’t even the demand for a public apology, because I don’t think it existed in this case (I could be dead wrong), but the perceived demand. That’s what fucks me up. Maybe Irene really did feel bad and wanted to make that apology herself (unlikely, as this would’ve been settled privately). But then I see fans leaving comments online like “I’m disappointed, but I still support her,” or “I’m glad she apologized and this didn’t go south…” and this is it: Irene doesn’t owe you shit. How could you be disappointed to learn she’s human, how could you be glad she apologized publicly? How? How? It’s almost like we don’t even realize what we’re doing, and how could we be expected to? K-pop is for us, it is soft serve ice cream, it’s a massage bed — of all the things I’ve obsessed over in my life, TV shows, movies, whatever, this is the shallowest and least challenging. Speaking as a heterosexual guy here, who couldn’t read fashion if it was Times New Roman and talks about music like it’s a luminescent alien life form — I really like it when music sounds good and beautiful ladies do anything. As a result, I get uncomfortable in instances where I’m shown the mirror.
Expecting things like apologies or accountability of idols plays into the worst aspects of K-pop. It’s hyper-commercial — people as trading cards — so cruel an industry that there must be a different standard for incidents like this. Why? Because we set the standard, and the terms, the judgment, etc., etc. And it’s not entirely our fault — fuck, I’m not sure it’s record labels’, either. It’s just something about how K-pop is marketed, the blazing blue streak of propulsion under all hallyu that fosters an environment where the consumer is king and that is so fucking irresponsible and dangerous and that’s been borne out and I’m honestly just terribly afraid. If I learned why idols who’ve died “mysteriously” died by suicide, I wouldn’t emotionally understand it, and that makes it unpredictable. Any barb thrown at Irene — whether “deserved” or not — is a true weapon, and if I were her, I wouldn’t be able to tell friends from enemies. I’d give up.
Christ, I could give a fuck if Irene is a flaming bitch — she could stab 12 people on the subway and it wouldn’t affect my life at all. What I can’t fucking stand is that, no matter how little any of this does affect my life, I’m implicated in it anyway because I’m collecting Red Velvet albums and I look at Instagram dodeca-daily because they’re on it. I’m consuming her. This is me saying: No. When she apologizes before the public square, I’m not in attendance. I’m so far away I’ve circumnavigated the planet and have arrived awkwardly to her left, not listening.
Regardless that outside the K-pop world, we have outrage-provoking incidents with actual sociopolitical ramifications, like the richest author in the world being a transphobe dumpster person, my issue is that this is an industry that determinedly and dementedly cultivates passion — diehards and saesangs both, and it can’t account for the one without affecting the other — they’re intrinsic in creation. I’m desperately looking for ways to mold my own fandom so that I can accept it, and incidents like this thankfully guide that grasping, idiot journey, but not without burning me in the process. This year has taught me that I need to define my own morality, and that’s a process that makes “cancel culture” look absurd — not to mention procedural and abstract.
This post doesn’t even make sense. I think I’m missing a piece. This shit will blow over tomorrow; Irene is too beloved and this year is too eventful. So I’m glad I’ve pressed a record of the incident onto my site so that I’ll always remember it, when forgetting is the best path.